Aimee Keeble | 25 June 2018
Charlie dreamt of water most nights. Of a big, jade coloured sea that moved like a snake; apathetic, muscular, stinking of salt. Sometimes bridges curled like spinal cords atop the water leading to nowhere. Charlie moved up and down, up and down, staring at the surface of this weird astral water, watching the slow figures of sea monsters gliding beneath the waves.
He would wake always with the same punch-drunk feeling, like he had been treading water for hours. The shower, never hot enough, would dribble hard Norfolk water over his body and he would try and pinch the droplets, seeing if he could prompt a feeling, some sort of connection to the dream water he could never touch.
From his kitchen window he could see the Cromer Pier. Every morning before he walked to work, Charlie drank his tea and watched the packs of gulls along the beach, savaging empty crisp packets and patrolling the promenade. He felt a restless egg had hatched within him somehow, something unasked for, given from the sea. Something that had gathered the salt from within his body and built a glittering nucleus. Charlie felt nervous, anticipating a happening he couldn’t relate to or comprehend.
The house had been left to him by his grandmother. He had parents, somewhere now distant in Durham, cold products of post-war Britain who had both spent childhoods in boarding schools. His mother called rarely and urgently, as if each time he answered she expected it to be a policeman, finally confirming he’d gone, he’d gone.
He walked every day to his job at the co-op on Cromer High Street. Charlie had been working as a cashier ever since he had left school. It had been a summer job that slowly morphed into a life. During the afternoons when it was quiet he read copies of FHM magazine. Balanced on his knee under the counter, he would try the quizzes like ‘How Well Do You Know Her Vagina?’ At thirty three, Charlie had not kissed a girl.
Question 1. The word “vagina” translates from Latin into which meaning…
A. Tear in space and time
B. Place to sheath your sword
C. Fun house
Charlie doodled mermaids in the margins of the page, his pen slippery on the magazine paper. Their fins were labial, fuzzy and curling upwards from their bodies like tropical flowers. He sold cigarettes to the boys at the local college. He fantasised about their lives; those hungry, gaudy dragons, swallowing down smoke and breathing it out again on the pink skin of a sixteen year old girl. The pensioners came like ducks, looking for bread and always in pairs. Charlie would watch their arthritic movements, the way they still clutched at each other's hands. He wanted to count the liver spots on their arms, to know that someday he would not be alone. How well do you know her vagina?
At night, Cromer Pier sparkled like chunky crumbs of broken stars, dirtied with space scum. The bulbs buzzed in the dark and scattered their lights onto the sea. Charlie would sit on the sand in the dark and watch for ships; it was satellite lonely, like being marooned on the moon. He would walk up the dunes towards his house, knowing he was pulling the water with him, knowing his dreams would be aqueous; it was as if his soul was drowning, shuddering up salt water, turning a final oceanic blue.
After a night of dreams, where sharks moved soft as cats around his ankles, Charlie ate his toast and watched the sea from the kitchen window. It was a Tuesday and his day off from work. The peaks of the waves were sharp spines of sunlight. He watched the beach. The tide was out and had left a dark stretch of sand and a bubbly, saliva like froth of water. A head suddenly popped from the waves, a small round face. Charlie stared and cracked the window, letting the salt wind in, trying to get a clearer look. It was a seal, its black baby eyes surprised and empty. It slipped through the water again and was gone.
Charlie watched The Jeremy Kyle Show and then a documentary about Alaska. It was early evening and the water had turned the dark purple of a lesion. Charlie put a co-op packaged chicken tikka meal in the microwave, and poured himself a glass of the port that hadn’t moved from its place underneath the sink from when his grandparents had first built the house. It was sticky and Charlie didn’t like the taste of liquor but he enjoyed the fog it created in his mind. He took the plastic tray from the microwave and sat at the little kitchen table. The moon was a bone shard, bright and thin in the sky. He poured himself a second glass of port. The food was too hot, too salty. He spooned it into his mouth and sipped the port. He watched the black scales of the water, breathing up and down, in and out, the big wet body of the world. There was someone on the beach. Charlie switched the light off so he could see more clearly. The figure was standing thigh deep in the water, facing the horizon, arms outstretched. With a sudden violence, the figure dropped and collapsed under the waves. Charlie leapt from his chair. The port had made him clumsy and the chair crashed behind him. He ran down the stairs and threw open the front door. The air was cold but he didn’t bother grabbing his coat. He stumbled down the dunes in the dark, straining to see where the figure had been.
The waves purred soft in the night. He approached the ocean carefully, he pushed himself to enter that cold and depthless dark. The water sucked at his ankles. He slapped at the surface, patting, feeling for a limb, a head maybe? Surf boomed somewhere distant and the stars sang down bright as knives. The waves knocked him, he was unsteady with the hum of alcohol and adrenaline. Charlie turned back to the beach, treading water. The figure was on the beach, halfway between the water and the dunes. His little house glowed at the top, it seemed terrifyingly far from him now.
Hello? His voice was a thin slip, hardly a sound at all. Charlie moved forward and the figure crouched.
I won’t hurt you. Are you hurt?
It was a girl. She was short and fleshy. Her white skin gleamed like that of a deep water fish, flesh that never knows the sun. Long, wet hair bunched around her waist. Her breasts were small, the nipples the colour of soft fur. Her belly was dimpled as raw dough. Below, a triangle of hair, oily dark like wet wool. Charlie felt his face grow hot despite the cold air. He didn’t even have a coat to cover her with.
Do you want to use my telephone? He pointed to his house and she turned her head to follow his finger. Maybe something traumatic had happened? Someone had tried to rape her, she’d escaped from a boat captained by drug traffickers, she’d got drunk and nearly killed herself? Charlie began to walk up the beach. She followed. He walked backwards, speaking low and encouragingly to her.
You can call the police, I have some food in the fridge, a cup of tea…
She stood naked and bright in his hallway, a pool of salt water beneath her. He tried to find the place where pupil met iris but her eyes were completely black. Her face was plain, unadulterated by hard lines. He draped his coat around her shoulders, but she didn’t move or help him cover herself further. Must be the shock, he thought. He gave her the telephone and she looked at it, turned it over in her wet hands. She brought it to her mouth and he heard the click of her teeth as she bit it thoughtfully. He poured her a glass of water and she drank it quickly, her black eyes not leaving his face. He refilled it three times before she refused any more. He sat down on the sofa and pulled at his knees. His hands were shaking. She watched him, the coat yawning open, exposing her white skin, pocked as moon dirt. He motioned for her to sit. His heart was racing. She sat beside him and a spread of water darkened the cushion. Charlie jumped up and got her a towel from the bathroom. He made a gesture of rubbing himself with the towel. She stared, her animal eyes quiescent and shiny.
Charlie opened the fridge. A lemon, shrivelled and testicular sat on the top shelf. Beside it, an opened package of corned beef. A few jars of Colman’s Mustard and half a packet of white bread that he had hoped the cold would keep longer were the only other things on the shelves. He checked the cupboards and decided to heat up some tomato soup for her.
What’s your name?
She stared at him. She gazed out of the window.
My name is Charlie, he told her pointing to himself, I am Charlie. You are safe.
He brought her soup on a tray. She made no move to take it. Charlie panicked, thinking his only choice would be to spoon feed her. He went back to the kitchen, remembering he had sardines in the cupboard, maybe she would like them on toast? He opened the packet and the oil dribbled over his hands. He turned to get the tea towel to wipe his fingers and she was there beside him. She snatched the little tin from him and swallowed down the fish, draining the salty oil into her throat. She reminded him of the gulls when they craned their heads to the sky, that eerie bending of limbs that is both nightmarish and all too natural. She licked her wet lips. Her teeth were small and yellow and her gums were purple, like the inside of a dog’s mouth. He was getting used to her nakedness now, to her shocking body.
She walked around the house, looking at the walls, touching the surfaces of side tables. She picked up a copy of FHM magazine and sniffed it. She disappeared into the bathroom and Charlie felt embarrassed. He thought of the stacks of toilet rolls, emptied of their whiteness, cardboard exposed and piled on top of each other like husks. He checked the clock on the oven. It was nearly midnight. She had been in the bathroom over an hour. Cautiously, he peered around the door. She was in the bath, her hair covering the curl of her like a blanket. Her eyes were closed. It smelt so strongly of salt, an alien musk that made him think of the lovemaking of whales; something that squiggled and pulsed and breathed, before exploding into primordial life.
Charlie closed the door partially and climbed the stairs to his bedroom at the top of the house. It took him a while to fall asleep, and when he did he had no dreams at all.
His alarm sounded at 7:05 AM. He needed to be at work at 8:00 AM. He pulled on his dressing gown and went down the stairs. The bathroom was empty. He felt a flush of panic and checked the front room, the living room, the little guest room that was still filled with boxes from when he’d moved in. He ran to the kitchen. She was sitting naked on the floor, crushed and emptied tins of tuna scattered across the tiles. Grey flakes of fish clung to her chin.
Instinctively, he wrestled out of his dressing gown and flung it over her. She continued to pry little chunks of fish from the tuna can.
He showered, thinking of what to do with her. Should he call the police? Should he call his mother? He rubbed his face with water. The shower curtain was suddenly pulled backwards. He cried out in surprise as she stepped heavily over the lip of the bath. She pushed past him to get to the spray of water and opened her mouth. Her skin felt like rubber against his. Charlie covered himself with his hands. He backed away from her, slipping slightly on the porcelain.
Sorry, he muttered. He grabbed a towel and stretched the shower curtain back into place.
He called the co-op and told Tracey he was sick. Charlie had never called off sick before so Tracey was concerned. He heard a wet sucking noise, as Tracey took a drag from one of her customary roll-ups.
Can I bring you anything love?
No, no. He coughed into his fist. I just need to lie down.
The shower was still running. Charlie knocked on the door. He heard the slap of her feet as she moved under the water. He sat in the kitchen and poured himself the rest of the port. She came out eventually, sopping with water. Her haunches jiggled as she came towards him and he noticed how queerly she moved, as if she were constantly catching herself from falling. He turned the shower off. The bathroom floor was flooded with water.
Are there people looking for you? He asked her. Your family?
She ignored him and stared out of the window. The sea was yellow and blue today.
You need clothes, he urged. He took off his pyjama top and held it out to her.
Like this. He pushed the neck of the t shirt down on her head and she screamed.
She spent the rest of the morning sitting on the kitchen table, looking at the beach. Charlie couldn’t go to the co-op to get more canned fish, Tracey would know he wasn’t really sick. He would have to drive to Tesco’s and risk leaving her for longer.
He put on his coat.
I’m going to the shops to get you more, he pointed to the empty cans on the floor. She didn’t turn around. He locked the door and suddenly felt the oddity of the situation as he walked to his car. There was a naked woman in his house. She had seen him naked.
She was still on the table when he came in, two shopping bags sagging with the weight of tinned tuna. There was darkness spread beneath her, everywhere she went she left water. He had bought a packet of Scottish salmon fillets, two thick slabs of orange meat fringed with silver. She watched him put away the cans. He opened the fridge to put the salmon away and she snatched the packet from his hand. She tore at it with her teeth and the fillets slithered into her lap. Charlie watched as she chewed at the fish, swallowing the skin, bright as tinsel.
He microwaved a cup of noodles and sat beside her on the kitchen table. The water had blushed red as the sun lowered. The tang of her body was breathtaking. He studied her as she stared out of the window, her wrists on her knees. Her skin was nocturnal pale. Her nose was soft and large, the planes of her face too wide and her chin was small. There was a pink scar on her right cheek. For a wild moment, he thought of her putting her head on his shoulder, of her body, silky as fresh butter between his fingers, of her loving him.
Cromer Pier squatted above the black water like an electric beast.
Would you like to see the Pier tomorrow? Charlie tapped the window. He thought of taking her for a walk along the promenade, of buying her an ice cream and golden battered fish. She grabbed his finger and brought it to her mouth. He could feel the heat of her breath. He froze as she examined his hand, turned it over and felt the knob of bone in his wrist. She yawned. She held his hand in between hers and resumed her sea gazing.
Charlie fell asleep on the kitchen table, his head against her thigh. When he woke, dawn was just spilling its light onto the water. The clouds were monstrous, and the sky was a dark green. She was still gazing out of the window, her strange eyes following the movement of the waves. He noticed little crumbs of salt in her hair.
Are you alright? He asked her.
She stood and tapped at the glass. She looked at him then back to the beach.
Would you like to go for a walk? He motioned with his fingers. She nodded and smiled, the little points of her teeth scummy with fish meat.
Charlie figured there wouldn’t be many people on the beach this early. He covered her with his coat and zipped it up. Just to be sure, he draped the blanket he kept on his sofa around her shoulders and tied the two ends together so they hung down her front. They walked down to the beach, the early morning air cold and wet. The sand was littered with black ribbons of seaweed, cartoon bright pieces of garbage and damp pieces of driftwood. Something crumpled and grey like a wet coat lay beneath the Pier. Charlie went closer to look at it. He pushed at it with the toe of his sneaker and it flapped forward, revealing itself to be a hollowed out seal carcass. The eyes were missing, as if they had been deliberately plucked out. There was no tear on the body, no blood, no sign of opening; it was perfect.
Hey, come look at this, he said.
She made a burying motion with her hands. She started to dig at the sand beneath the seal skin.
You want to bury it? He laughed.
They dug a shallow pit in the sand which quickly pooled with sea water. She dragged the skin further up the beach to where the sand was dry.
Why are we doing this? He was tired from the night on the table, from digging through wet sand, for having no dreams, and from his awe of her. She had already made a hole. He helped her make it deeper, scooping out sand until it felt wet and cold.
Ok, that’s deep enough, he told her. They buried the seal skin. Charlie put an empty bottle on top to mark the spot. She nodded, pleased.
He made her kippers for breakfast, the kitchen filling with smoke and salt. She licked the fork and she licked the plate, grease running yellow down her wrists.
There was a loud knock on the door. Charlie looked at the oven clock and realised it was nearly noon. He had forgotten to go into work. The knock came again. Charlie ran down the stairs. He could see Tracey’s purple hair through the window on top of the front door. He opened the door slightly but kept the latch on.
Hi Tracey, he said and coughed.
Tracey examined him through the crack in the door, one hand held up to her face and a roll-up balancing between her fingers.
You didn’t turn up for work, I got worried. Tracey repositioned herself so her face was nearer the crack.
Is everything alright?
There was a loud crashing sound from the kitchen. Tracey looked at Charlie.
What on earth was that?
Charlie began to close the door. It’s nothing, don’t worry about me Tracey, I’ve just got this horrible cold and I completely forgot to call in. I also found a stray on the beach a few days ago and I’ve been deciding what to do with it.
Tracey put her free hand in between the door to stop it from closing,
A stray? Charlie what are you on about? I think I’d better come inside.
Charlie shoved her hand away and pushed the door shut. He listened to Tracey hammer on the wood. She shouted his name.
The girl stood at the top of the stairs, the second salmon fillet gripped in her fist. Eventually the hammering stopped. Charlie watched through the window as Tracey walked off down the road, her mobile phone in her hand.
Are you alright? Charlie asked her. He climbed the stairs and put a hand on her shoulder. It was cold like a pebble spat from the dark stomach of the sea.
She swallowed a hunk of salmon and held out her hand to him. He followed her into the kitchen. The fridge had been pulled away from the wall and was lying on its side, its contents spilling out onto the floor like strange guts. Charlie stared at the lemon that had rolled under the kitchen table. She would have to be incredibly strong to be able to move the fridge like that. She eyed him under a wet lock of hair, silver scales flecked across her skin like chainmail. He felt a rush of desire and fear flip flop in his stomach, as if he had swallowed something finned and spiked. She sat on the fridge. Her muscles were like melted marble, they hung heavy and dangerous about her body. Slowly, slowly, she spread herself flat, her eyes half closed in pleasure as her bare skin pimpled against the cold. Charlie remembered a word from his sixth form English class; siren. Sirens white and spread as spilt cream, half in sea, half on rock, their deadly bodies undulating python easy…
She watched him, supine as a leopard.
She spent the rest of the afternoon sprawled on the fridge, one hand dipped into its opening. The fridge whined and leaked. Charlie thought of the electric bill. He left the lemon where it was.
That night Charlie dreamt he was inside the mouth of a whale. He hauled himself up over pyramids of teeth and walked over a floor of tongue, pink as the curl of flesh that ran like a ribbon between her thighs. The whale’s blow hole was a skylight. Charlie craned his head to watch the sky move slowly above him, bitten with stars, leaking white. He was carried in the mouth. He listened to the rumble of the whale’s breathing, his eyes watering with the hot stink of brine and inner muscle. He slipped, his ankle lodging itself in a crack in the tooth he had been sitting on. Charlie gripped his lower leg and pulled but his ankle didn’t move. He thrashed. He threw his weight to the left, trying to pull himself free.
Charlie opened his eyes. The black sky yawned above him, a sky for sailors and pirates, for things with chitinous armour, things that bit back at the endless deep. He was being dragged by his right ankle down the beach. He twisted his neck and saw her, her white hands tight around his bone, his naked foot defenceless as a fish in the mouth of a seal. Her powerful moon limbs, pushing water out of their path, her long hair lashing against her arms- she dragged him into the surf. Charlie screamed. He banged his arms along the sand. The water caught his back and buoyed him up. He rocked. Her grip didn’t loosen. Salt water leapt down his throat as he yelled. He choked on the sea. He flailed, reached for her, the water snaking into his nostrils. He thought of Tracey. She would be home, watching Britain’s Got Talent, a creeping vine of smoke curling from her lips, flanked by cats. Hot despair scrabbled at his heart as he recalled her walking away, the small figure of her receding down the drive. He had cast out his only chance of being saved. What love makes us do! Charlie moaned.
She glittered in the starlight. She dragged him through the water, into the strong wreath of her arms. She rocked him with the current. Charlie clung to her neck and she kissed his throat. She held him and they circled darkly in the water.
Please, his lips were wet with slobber and water, please take me home.
She looked out towards where the horizon would be, where the world was cut in two, where element met element. They bobbed together and Charlie wept, never had he been so afraid, never had he been so fully in want of something or someone.
She swam them back to shore. Charlie staggered up the dunes and collapsed on the sand, soaked and exposed. She lumbered next to him on her knees. She covered him, her body glowing with the bright raw eye of the moon. Charlie shivered. She sniffed his cheekbone and licked off the salt the water had left. He lent into the soft of her, her arms under his armpits.
Charlie fell asleep to the shimmer of rain on water.
The sky was fish belly white. He woke alone and naked and cold. The horizon was silver, it was just after dawn. Charlie scanned the beach, looking for her. He stumbled along the surf, not knowing what to call, realising he had never known her name. The sea looked dirty and swollen. He searched under Cromer Pier, amongst the bottles and the trash, for a sign that she had come this way. A little beyond, towards the dunes, an open hole in the sand.
Charlie slipped into the sea. He drifted, trying to discern human movement amongst the steel bright world of the waves.
A seal breached the water directly opposite him. It bobbed, shoulder-less, as natural as a star, staring at him with eyes like drops of oil. It sank beneath the waves again.
No! He cried out. Don’t leave me!
Charlie doggie paddled. He followed the line the animal left as it divided the water, acrobatic as a dancer. The shore was a distant thing now, a past memory. Charlie floated in open water. The seal appeared next to him. It dove back under and he felt its jaws clamp around his ankle. He marvelled at the strength with which it pulled him swiftly down.
Charlie sank beneath the blue, pulled by her mouth. He felt newer than he ever had, giving up his air, surrounded in utero, falling in water.
People change for love, Charlie thought as the air bubbled from his lungs. He glanced down, everything blurred, at the round shape of her mottled body as she drove them further into darkness.
I can change.
Charlie lost thought. His mind stretched and swam. The blue exploded inside him and he began to dream.
His body rounded, sleek and slippery as a heart freshly plucked for sacrifice. He shook his head and felt the delicate pull of water against whisker. He swam beside her, their flippers like butterfly wings. They glided, blimp-like- bumping gently into each other as they ploughed deeper into the sea.
There were stars rising from the depths of the ocean floor, glowing like scraps of God, floating weightless. The seals swam through the bright. They pin wheeled. They turned yellow-gold then were gone.